REVIEW: How to Be Single

10 02 2016

Far too often, Hollywood rom-coms problematize singleness. This genre portrays the lack of a romantic partner as a condition to be fixed – or even a disease to be cured. In many ways, coupling is somewhat of a biological imperative. But with lifespans getting longer and the nature of connectivity changing our expectations for others, singleness is becoming a more permanent fixture of the life course.

How to Be Single,” adapted from a novel by Liz Tuccillo (and seemingly loosely), provides many different avenues to explore just what this special period might mean. There’s the romantic monogamist type in Dakota Johnson’s Alice, the free-wheeling and fun-loving hedonist with Rebel Wilson’s Robin, and the maternally instinctual but careerist in Leslie Mann’s Meg. Each finds a path that is right for them as the film goes on, a refreshing change of pace from the “one size fits all” solution offered by far too many films.

The ride towards these conclusions gets a little turbulent, though, as the film plays into a few of the double standards or traps it wants to decry. It mostly just sticks to archetypes, which works just fine once each character finds themselves within one. Ironically, “How To Be Single” finds its biggest successes in the moments when someone’s archetype leads them to a moment of self-actualization.

The one character who does not fit this mold is Alison Brie’s Lucy, an algorithmically-obsessed serial online dater. Her connection to the core trio in the film is only tangential; the link comes from a neighborhood bar that Alice and Robin also happen to frequent. Lucy’s presence just clutters up “How To Be Single.” She feels like a shameless ploy for topical relevancy rather than a well-imagined addition to the story. Brie’s fire-tongued portrayal makes Lucy’s scenes fun, but they detract from the real core of the film. Her constant need to find herself in someone else clashes with the message offered by the rest of the film, which posits that extended time for solitary self-reflection can produce worthwhile discoveries. B-2stars

REVIEW: The Intern

23 09 2015

If I could live within the universe of a single filmmaker, I would probably choose Nancy Meyers.  For the two hours or so when I watch one of her movies, the noise of the world goes silent and her soothing presence reassures me that good people and common decency will ultimately prevail.  Her latest cinematic creation, “The Intern,” continues her grand tradition of optimistic wisdom worth embracing with wide arms and an open heart.

In a cynical age, dismissing such a hopeful vision as naive or simplistic would be all too easy, but Meyers’ film never feels facile.  If “The Intern” seems like sunshine and rainbows, it’s merely a retraining of the eye to see the sunshine through the clouds and rainbows through the rainstorm.  Her characters know pain and must draw the strength from within to come out on top.

Meyers’ protagonist of choice is Ben Whittaker, played by Robert DeNiro as the polar opposite of Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta.  A 70-year-old widower, Ben tires of retirement and looks for a way to become needed once more.  He finds that at About the Fit, an e-retail start-up with an internship program for senior citizens.  After an inspiring video lands him the position, the old company man quickly charms the entire company.  Ben even manages to command a trio of younger workers, including Adam DeVine’s chummy Jason, into a posse that Meyers often photographs like the boys in an “Entourage” episode.

The only person unenthused by Ben’s presence is the site’s embattled founder and CEO Jules Ostin, who is played by Anne Hathaway.  She had the right idea at the right time yet struggles to inspire confidence among investors.  They think a more seasoned executive can help sustain the company’s growth, and try as she might, they do not buy that Jules has the business acumen of a Mark Zuckerberg.

Still, she is an enormously capable businesswoman just trying to find a more sustainable balance between the demands of work and home life.  Ben sees right through her smoke screens, and it absolutely terrifies Jules.

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REVIEW: Unexpected

24 07 2015

UnexpectedIn Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected,” pregnancy functions as something more than just a nine month-long sentence that brings agony and joy in unequal measure.  Here, it serves as a springboard into the future that simultaneously forces a reckoning with the present.

As the film’s title might imply, Cobie Smulder’s protagonist Samantha Abbott finds herself in the family way at a very inopportune moment.  The school where she currently teaches must close its doors due to budget cuts, and she still feels a strong enough urge to impact the lives of students that she cannot simply hang up the cleats to become a stay-at-home mom.

Swanberg’s script, co-written with Megan Mercier, gives her little to do other than endure pregnancy with one of her students, the promisingly bright Jasmine (Gail Bean).  Whether they are working through Jasmine’s college application, preparing with a session of prenatal yoga, or just plain gorging on a milkshake, “Unexpected” always delights even when largely void of dramatic tension.

The film does deliver (excuse the pun) on a subtle interrogation of the “great white savior”/”nice white lady” trope that often makes its way to the forefront in films involving two characters from different backgrounds.  Swanberg and Mercier put Samantha and Jasmine in the same situation, which itself levels the playing field between them somewhat.  But in spite of her best intentions, Samantha discovers that even – and perhaps especially – when it comes to maternity clothes, one size does not fit all.  Vast socioeconomic divides still exist between them, and “Unexpected” probes these macro-level prejudices and disparities brilliantly through the use of micro-aggressions.

This commentary makes for a nice addition to the film, but what really makes the price of admission worth it is Cobie Smulders.  For heaven’s sake, can she just tear up her contract with Marvel and keep doing small, heartfelt indies like this (and “Results,” for that matter)?  Smulders possesses an uncanny ability to convey a devastating sense of fragility in her characters, a particularly remarkable feat considering that she also erects an iron-clad facade of normalcy for them to hide behind.

She turns in touching work in “Unexpected,” so natural-feeling that it cannot help but evoke a suspicion that Smulders has yet to reach the apex of her dramatic talents.  What a sight that will be.  B+3stars